First drive: 2018 Subaru BRZ tS [Review]

This limited-run BRZ gets everything but more power.

California is home to many, many hundreds of miles of challenging, adequately maintained and stunningly under-trafficked roadways just begging to be explored by dogged enthusiasts. This isn't one of them.

State Route 74 (the "Palms to Pines Highway") outside Palm Springs looks very appealing at first glance. It's tantalizingly remote. The views are breathtaking. It twists back on itself countless times over quick and dramatic changes in elevation. So far, so good, right?

Unfortunately, it's also a key route between the Coachella Valley and, well, pretty much the rest of southern California. That means it's busy just about all the time--even now, at the end of January.

In many ways, Palm Springs is to California what Florida is to everything east of the Mississippi. It's warm year 'round, full of palm trees (go figure) and attracts, well, let's say a more seasoned generation of human beings. Upon our arrival, we were delayed in retrieving our luggage because golf bags kept getting caught in the carousel flap, clogging the works and sending suitcases plummeting to the tarmac outside.

But we're miles away from the airport now, standing next to an idling Subaru, taking in the sights. We're one of many pairs of journalists buzzing up and down the mountain as many times as our schedule allows, trying to get a feel for the two cars we've been asked to evaluate. The behavior of our pack is, well, borderline antisocial at times. We're here to do a job; everybody else is traveling at his or her own pace.

It's with that in mind that we look up to see an older gentleman approaching us. We avert our glance, checking the lot for any cars whose occupants may have felt wronged by our perhaps-less-than-socially-acceptable approach to the climb. Nothing looks familiar. Comforting. "I see you've got the cameras on there," the man says, gesturing at the latticework of equipment suction-cupped to almost every panel on the BRZ. "You're doing video. My question is, what are you going to do with it?" We expected to be berated, maybe even challenged. Such a straightforward and unloaded question catches us slightly off-guard.

I glance at my drive partner, a presenter for a public-television program of some note. He, in turn, clears his throat and explains himself. Our interrogator's face brightens upon learning that said program also airs on a speed-themed cable network. "I love that channel. Are you on earlier in the evening, though? That's when my wife watches her programs."

Heartened, we hop back into the BRZ for the quick run back down the mountain. "That's not what I expected," I say, really to nobody. My partner grunts his agreement and hammers the throttle as soon as we're clear of the sightseeing gaggle. This isn't what we expected, either.

DefianceFrom the get-go, the Subaru BRZ was an excellent example of a car which, despite being as good as the sum of its parts, was in many ways brought down by failing to be the sum of our expectations. Prevailing wisdom has held it to be slightly better-sorted than its twin, but it's still tainted by the fact that the platform's pre-launch hype was completely out of control.

The twins are cars which, more than any other in recent memory, were saddled early on by the hope of what they could be, rather than what they would be. Taglines like "200 horsepower for under $20,000!" come to mind. They weren't Toyota's words, but they may as well have been.

It hasn't gone away. Despite being told otherwise more times than we can count, fans continue to expect Subaru to offer a turbocharged model. Expect. That's tough to overcome.

AcceptanceThe Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ were both overhauled for 2017, coinciding with the former's move from the discontinued Scion brand in the United States. The updates included a negligible power bump, some interior refinements, and the introduction of some new options (including a new performance package, which will come into play later).

For 2018, Subaru has further iterated the BRZ package, adding its Starlink infotainment system on Limited and above--a welcome upgrade. What sits above Limited? We're glad you asked, because that's the biggest news, and what brings us to Palm Springs: a limited-edition performance model sitting atop the lineup, dubbed "tS."

tStS means "tuned by STI." Yes, this is Subaru's "M Sport," if you will--a collaboration between its dedicated performance brand and the mothership. In the past, such projects were tricky to execute. STI would have had to pull completed cars from the line and add their upgrades. Now, STI has been further incorporated into the standard production process, allowing its special touches to be introduced in the factory, rather than in an off-site warehouse.

So, what do you get? Well, unlike the STI Type RA, there's no extra power. Instead, you get suspension, tire and aero upgrades to help you get the most out of the platform. The tS is also the beneficiary of additional chassis and suspension reinforcements made to the base model in the 2017 and 2018 update cycles.

Let's start with the obvious (and boy, are they obvious). The dry-carbon STI wing is a bit of an eyesore, but it is functional and adjustable. When set up for track duty, it works in concert with the other aero components to increase rear downforce by 50%. Also visible from the get-go is a set of 18-inch wheels (the biggest fitted to a factory BRZ thus far) wrapped in genuine high-performance rubber--Michelin Pilot Sport 4s.

Underneath, the BRZ tS benefits from the same goodies from the Performance package we mentioned earlier. That means you get four-piston Brembo brakes up front and two-pots in the rear (down from the 6/4 setup of the Type RA) and SACHs performance dampers (retuned for this application, but utilizing the same basic hardware).

There are also a couple of tS-specific chassis upgrades straight out of the STI parts catalog. Flexible underhood v-bracing and subframe-mounted draw stiffeners have been fitted from the factory to improve steering response. Curious as to the point of the seemingly oxymoronic concept of a "flexible stiffener"? We were too. So we asked. Essentially, they're designed to stiffen the chassis and subframe connections in a way that makes the steering respond quicker without excessive rigidity when you don't want it. Essentially, they're part reinforcement, part dampener.

The total packageWe said above that this car is not what we expected. Let's put this in plain terms. The BRZ tS is good. Damned good.

Stepping out of the STI Type RA and into the BRZ tS really brings into focus just how different these cars are. The STI's humbler roots are very obvious, from the upright seating position and correspondingly high center of gravity, everything about it says, "I was once practical but now I am fast."

The STI leans into a corner; the BRZ simply bites. The STI's steering is numb and isolating--pleasant around town and adequate when it counts; the BRZ's is immediate and obvious, transmitting every minute detail of the road (whether you need it or not).

What we have here is not some echo-chamber exaggeration of minute differences. It's frankly staggering just how different these cars are, especially when you consider that they share a lot of common DNA. Anyone who has a couple drinks and tries to lecture you about the 86/BRZ being simply watered-down Imprezas without a front differential is frankly somebody you should stop inviting to the bar.

Pushing itWhere the BRZ has traditionally suffered from having way too much chassis potential relative to its available grip, the tS has taken care of that and then some. The new Pilot Sport 4s stick like crazy, and thanks to the BRZ's light weight, they're virtually impossible to overheat unless you go about it deliberately.

In fact, the tires are so good that they mask the BRZ's playful tendencies until you've really pushed it too far. This means two things: For one, the BRZ's performance envelope is much wider. Secondly, it's not quite as forgiving and progressive when you reach its limits.

This isn't a negative, strictly. It's just something to keep in mind--and something we learned when we got a little too cute with the chicane at the end of Thermal's Desert Circuit, where we managed to half-loop the tS after grabbing far too much curb in the left-hand entry. Where the STI Type RA's heft absorbed that mistake and simply left us slower, the BRZ reminded us what happens when you get ham-fisted in a real performance car.

PerspectiveThe tS is cool, we'll give it that. It's a limited-edition model of a relatively low-volume car. That makes it special, and we're certain all 500 will find homes before the first quarter is out. At the same time, though, we find it difficult to specifically recommend the tS for anybody who is looking for an ideal daily driver/weekend warrior hybrid.

For starters, let's talk comfort and practicality. If the STI Type RA's ride is a bit on the flinty side, the BRZ tS's is downright punishing. Imagine having the choice between hitting a pothole riding a full-suspension mountain bike or a skateboard. Yeah, we found ourselves driving around as many road imperfections as we could in the tS.

It's also, well, just a bit much. The wing? Oof. Yeah, it's functional. So is an outhouse. The Cherry Blossom Red accents and such are fine, and the reupholstered seats are cool, but none of that makes it any faster (or more comfortable).

And that's the catch, right there. Aero aside, you can get almost all of the tS's goodies without getting a tS. Simply buy a Limited and slap on the Performance package and you're 90% of the way there (for three grand less, mind you). The rest is just tires, and that's easily addressed post-sale.

Leftlane's bottom lineWe came away incredibly impressed by the 2018 Subaru BRZ tS. This is the best factory BRZ money can buy. No, it's not as punchy as the STI (let alone the Type RA we referenced throughout this article), but it's not slow. You can get more car for $34,000, but we're not sure you'll necessarily get more satisfaction. We'd skip the exclusivity and just slap some Super Sports on it. To each his or her own.

2018 Subaru BRZ tS base price, $33,495; as-tested, $34,355Destination, $860

Street and track photography by Byron Hurd. Detail and interior shots courtesy of Subaru.

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